Looking down Chamberlain Lake
The Allagash River. What image comes into your mind when you read those words? A riverman standing on the spring log drive to the mill? A fir tipped horizon on a calm lake at sunset? Class III whitewater? Or how about an American Indian watching you silently from the bank? A large trout bending your fly pole? Allagash itself seems a harsh word, invoking images of jagged dark rocks and dense seemingly impenetrable forests. At one point in history any one of those images would be true. The Allagash cuts a 100 mile ribbon from Chamberlain Lake to its confluence with the St. John. American Indians used the Allagash extensively as a travel route and Above the Gravel Bar: The Native canoe routes of Maine is a very interesting book, and well worth the read if you live in Maine or not. The book (linked at bottom of post) describes how and why the waterways are named the way they are, and the different routes Native Americans used.
Standing at the official put-in for the trip on the Chamberlain Lake thoroughfare is seemingly like standing at an old fork in the road. Heading to the right takes you into Telos pond, portage around Telos dam, down Webster cut (famously described by Thoreau), into Webster Lake and down Webster stream into Grand Lake Matagamon. There are gorgeous views of the mountains in Baxter Park, which is on your right going down Webster Stream. Webster Stream is wild and narrow, and should only be attempted by very accomplished paddlers. Baxter State Park maintains the campsites on Grand Lake Matagamon as well. At the end of the lake is the East Branch of the Penobscot river, which after wonderful views and lots of portages, dumps you into the Penobscot itself. Taking the left way though leads you to Chamberlain Lake, and into the heart of the Allagash river.
Sunrise over Chamberlain Lake
Chamberlain lake is both beautiful, and slightly forbidding because of its sheer size. The day I set forth on Chamberlain it was windy and rainy, and the lake was like a kettle of boiling water with waves reaching up to the gunnels of the canoe. Hindsight being 20/20 I probably should have stayed at the campsite at the end of the thoroughfare and gotten an early start the next morning, but I was anxious to get started. The weather was unforgiving and began to get worse as sheets of rain blew down the lake and into my face. A good portion of the shore is rocky, and prevents an easy canoe landing. Finally I found a spot to stop and take a rest, huddled under a thicket of cedar. As the afternoon wore on, it began to clear, and by late afternoon the wind had calmed down, eventually turning to glass as I paddled along and landed at Lost Spring campsite for the night. After dinner I went down to the shore and caught trout after trout on the flypole, right from the bank. One of the things I find fascinating about camping , especially in Maine, is that as the night darkens and you are sitting by a campfire, lost in your thoughts, it is a timeless moment. With the loons beginning their calls, it could be any moment in history. If you want to travel through time, go camping in the remote Maine wilderness. It’s been wild and free forever. That first night on Chamberlain had that feeling.
Most guidebooks tell you to go across the lake at Ellis Brook to Lock Dam to continue into Eagle Lake. I disagree for a couple of reasons, first being that you will miss some of the tramway. The tramway was a railway that took the logs to the mill, and was a vast improvement over booming them down the lake to the Penobscot river. At most of the campsites on the west side of Chamberlain a short walk leads you to the old railbed, which is now grown up, but still visible. Stand there and imagine the roaring of the steam engine as it passed laden with its load of logs. I wish I could have gone for a ride on one. As you go up the lake it’s a short jaunt up into the start of Allagash Stream to see the old trestle. The right side has fallen into the water, with the rails from the left decending into the depths. It’s a shorter distance now to the east side of the lake, where you will find a portage trail that is about a mile. This is the other thing you would miss if you went via lock dam. Prior to the tramway, there was a steam (donkey engine) conveyor that hauled all the logs from Eagle across to Chamberlain to be boomed up for the journey down the lake. Everything is still there in various stages of decay. A short walk into the woods reveals more, and how nature will always grow back. If memory serves it took the better part of three hours to accomplish the portage, with a special treat at the end. The locomotives that ran on the tramway are still there in the woods in all their glory. They have been somewhat restored (over time one of them had fallen over) by a local group. To get the locomotives there, they were hauled across the thick ice during the winter. Imagine…each one of them weighs 90 tons, looking at a chart of what weights ice can support, it would require 60 inches of ice. The thickest I’ve ever seen was 38 inches. It is magnificent to view, and worth spending some time poking about the area, which is a good place for lunch. These are accessible by taking the Lock dam route as well, but it’s a bit of a paddle.
Locomotives at Eagle Lake
Eagle Lake has an interesting story surrounding it. In 1976 4 men claimed to have been abducted by a UFO and subject to testing by aliens. A good story to relate around the campfire at night. Check out the story here .
When I left the trains to paddle across Eagle Lake, I was taught a valuable lesson about paddling big lakes. Eagle was glass when I started out, without even a ripple on its surface, or a cloud in the sky, headed for Farm Island. Suddenly and without warning, as the shore I was headed to was in view, and the shore I was coming from a good distance behind the wind came up with a vengeance. If you know anything about boating, you want your bow into the wind and into the waves. With this wind that came up it was behind me, and so I had what is called a following sea. The waves grew in size, enough so they would break over the stern and get my back wet. I was in a predicament for sure, and I was becoming more worried by the minute. The trouble with a following sea is that the waves are rolling with you, which makes it a lot easier to get swamped. I pictured the canoe swamped with water, with my gear in disarray around me, as I paddled along, quartering to the waves before each one came through. As I described it after, I swore my way across Eagle Lake. After what seemed like hours, it looked like I would make Farm Island, and it was with relief that I stepped onto its shore for the night. Preparing to be windblown (too windy to paddle) is a must for your itinerary on this trip. The wind slowed at sunset, but did not stop through the night, and I had one more big lake to make before I got onto the river, so at three am under the moon I got up, packed, and with a last look at the Katahdin range, set out to put Eagle Lake to my stern. The wind typically picks up during the day, so I knew this was the prime time to make some distance before it got too windy to go anymore, and I didn’t stop. There is nothing like watching the sun come up from a canoe. By noontime I had made it to the end of Churchill Lake safely and stopped for the night. After setting up camp I wandered down to the sandy shore, went for a swim, and spent the afternoon napping with my feet in the cool water, watching the puffy clouds, and relaxing. All of the campsites are maintained by the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) and are great places.
The magic thing about any remote camping trip, starts on the third day. For the first couple of days you are “settling in” and still have some of the vestiges clinging to you of the life you are leaving behind. Typically on day three I become free. I deliberately usually don’t bring a watch, or a way to keep time, one of our biggest enslavements as a society. You get to find what cycle of time fits your body the best. When you wake up, eat, sleep all of that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s out the window. And it all starts on day three. I did bring a watch on a long canoe trip once, and discovered how my rhythm compares to our society’s time. I’m usually up and packed around 4 am, watching the sunrise from shore, or while paddling. Lunch on a pretty spot on the river is right around 10. Depending on if I find a spot where I just have to stay there because it’s so nice, or depending on how far I want to go that day I usually have camp set up by 1pm, afternoon snack and a nap, followed by swimming, fishing, or exploring. Dinner around 6, and a paddle, fish, sunset watch. A drink by the fire lost in thought and then bed around 10 or 10:30. That’s who I am when I’m free, and without the constraints of time. Try it – find your rhythm and see who you are when you don’t “have” to do anything but what you want.
After dinner I walked down to Churchill Dam to scout for the next morning, for I would be officially on the river in the morning, and running Chase rapids. One of the great things about the Allagash is there is a ranger at Churchill who for a modest fee (when I was there it was $10.00) to portage all of your gear 10 miles downstream where the river opens up into Umsaskis Lake, and is well worth the price. Chase rapids is rated a strong class II or mild Class III rapid depending on water level. I don’t remember it being all that difficult to get through, most of the time it’s basically just dodging rocks, and exciting. A group of Boy Scouts behind me overturned and broke a thwart. I gave them some duct tape (a must have item to repair a canoe on a trip) so they could get it fixed. One fascinating and exciting thing for me about running rapids is the decision making – you make a calculated best decision with your knowledge, and you instantly know if you were right or not. Where else do you have that instant gratification? In life you always wonder if you are making the right decision, here on the river if you are right, you stay afloat. If you are wrong, you get wet. It’s basic and simple principles, and I like that. After what seems like a long time, around one of the bends is your gear on the bank where the ranger put it. There is still moderate current that brings you into Umsaskis. On the right as you approach the lake is a campsite called Chisholm Brook. I didn’t stay there, but the next time I run the river I am, what a beautiful campsite tucked away in the tall spruce and fir trees…absolutely beautiful. After a short narrow spot you come to Long Lake, where I stayed at Grey Brook campsite.
Morning at Long Lake
After a short piece of river, you come to Harvey Pond and then Long Lake dam, which I portaged. It is possible to run it, although supposedly there are spikes still sticking up that can damage your canoe should you hit one, so I played it safe. Of course, if I was thinking, there is a campsite there where it would be easy to stay since you have all of your gear out anyway. After the dam is a good stretch of river that brings you to Round Pond, the river divides up into threads before emptying in to the pond, and the water is quick. I think all of the separate channels are runnable, I picked the river right channel and made it safely. I stayed at outlet campsite on the end of the pond, before it becomes river again. A passing ranger told me about a must see firetower that was a short walk on the other side of the pond. Her definition of a short walk and mine I believe are quite different. After I finally got to the tower it looked (to me) too rickety to climb. I did climb halfway up and took a look around, and it was a pretty good view. Halfway down the trail I got caught in a thunderstorm that I had to wait out before heading back to camp.
Sitting around the fire that night, a giant frog suddenly appeared just within the firelight. I had never seen, nor have I seen since, a bigger frog. We both sat there looking at each other for a few minutes, when I hatched an idea. I had nightcrawlers for fishing with me, and I slowly reached in the cooler and got one out, and placed it in front of the frog. The frog sat there for a few minutes, and just when I began to think he wasn’t interested, with lightning fast speed he grabbed the worm with both of his front legs and stuffed it in his mouth, pushing it in. It seems it took a millisecond to happen, and then he went back to just sitting there with a blank look on his face. I fetched him another, and then two more. The fifth one he ignored, and then as quick as he was there, he was gone, probably thinking about how lucky he was.
The next morning started uneventfully, but just after getting settled into a good paddling stroke I came around the corner to find a big moose in the middle of the river. The river was narrow here, and I hesitated, trying to decide what to do, and what he was going to do. There didn’t seem to be enough comfortable room on either side of him for me to get by, so I backpaddled and waited. He stood at looked at me for a bit, and then ate a little and then stood some more. Some time passed and I was beginning to think I should make a go of it, when something in the woods caught his interest, and he stared intently at the opposite bank. Shortly another moose appeared on the bank, and they looked at each other for a while. Then, the moose on the bank turned and ran into the woods. The one in the river started chase, running across the river on the side I had thought about getting by him on, making an incredible bow wave in front of him. Lots of excitement that morning. Just past Round Pond on the right is the tornado path. I remember you have to turn around to see it, and I’m not sure what year it happened, but its on the side of a hill and you’ll know it because in the midst of all the conifers is a narrow swath of birch and maple trees. There are occasional rapids and a beautiful stretch of river through here, I pushed hard and made it to Ramsay Ledges just before a fast moving thunderstorm. Exploring that evening I came to a beaver dam and fished it for a bit, and had the pleasure of watching a couple of beavers come over the dam and swim right under the boat. It was a warm July night, and after dinner I waded out into the shallow water and laid down in it, letting the current of the Allagash pass over me for a while. During the night I was awakened to a loud splashing in the river, I stuck my head out of the tent, and shined the headlamp out onto the river to see a big moose staring at me. She raised her ears just like a horse does, and stared at me for a few moments before proceeding upstream, now oblivious to my presence.
Upriver from Ramsay Ledges is a campsite called Cunliffe Depot. Stop in here to see a derelict Lombard steam log hauler, invented in the early 1900′s. It was essentially a steam locomotive with skis on the front to steer, and caterpillar tracks on the back. Truly a leviathan of the woods.
Downriver a ways is Michaud Farm, and past that you will begin to here the roar of Allagash Falls, an unrunnable falls that you portage on the right. Start staying to the right when you hear the falls, and you will see the trail. It’s worth spending some time at the falls for it’s beauty.
Between the Falls, and the end of your journey there are some interesting places. The AWW gives you a free map at the beginning of your journey, with the campsites and rapids listed on it. Look for a site called Ghost Landing bar. During the 1800′s a large pine tree fell on and killed the man that was cutting it. The log was found to have a hollow heart when taken taken to the water in preparation to be floated to the mill and was left on the bank. Since then, some folks passing down the river have reported seeing a ghost of the logger standing next to the log crying out to them to put the log in the river so his soul could rest.
Also watch for McGargle Rocks ( I wasn’t quite sure where they were) which are not a problem for canoeists, but were a big problem for loggers. The area is named for a river driver that was killed trying to loosen a log jam.
After Allagash Falls, I stayed at Twin Brook for the night, and prepared to get back to civilization the next day. It got really cold that night, down into the mid 40′s. The next day brought twin brook rapids, Eliza hole rapids, and finally Casey rapids, none of which are bad, before coming around the corner to see the road at Allagash, and bringing the trip to an end.
So there you have it -you have tested your mettle, and found out what you are made of. You have found yourself and lived as we should live. You have disappeared off the map for several days without news, phones, or other distractions other than making the trip. Congratulations.
Here’s a short video of the trip down the river I took in 1997;
And a video of the history of the river;
Some interesting books: